Sat, 11 Nov 2000

The invisible empire of America

By Martin Woollacott

LONDON: At the beginning of the 20th century, prescient Americans wondered what was to become of the British empire, the contradictions and weaknesses of which seemed evident to them just as they were acquiring their own first imperial possessions.

It is a question which could now be raised with equal or greater force about the American empire which presidents inherit just as surely as they do the west wing, that extra-ordinary network, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr once put it, of "troops, ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread wide around the luckless planet".

This garrisoning of the world has become so familiar that it is barely noticed, at least by Americans, until some dramatic incident -- a rape in Okinawa, an American aircraft cutting a cable-car wire at an Italian ski resort, or an attack on a U.S. destroyer in a Yemen port -- reminds us that it is there.

Or, others would say, until it is needed, as it was in the Gulf or in Bosnia. What this empire is for, whether it is a force on balance for good or ill, or for what admixture of the two, whether the world could manage without it, and whether, in any case, it is sustainable -- these are issues which could be before America and the rest of us sooner than expected.

They intertwine with more familiar issues like intervention, but are not the same. Those concern choices in the abstract, but empire is a tangible structure of people and plant, and also a history of many things done over the years, with precedents and consequences reaching into the future.

Opposition to American empire, or to American predominance, for those who prefer to avoid the word "empire", does not go unremarked. But because it is usually slotted into particular pigeonholes, ranging from "terrorism" at one extreme to "differences of policy" at the other, the cumulative strength of that opposition may be underestimated.

Those who oppose the American empire do so with varying degrees of anger. But even those who run it are troubled. Adm. Dennis Blair, until recently one of the four American military proconsuls who, as regional commanders in chief, divide up the world between them, told a Washington Post writer: "What's the United States going to do with its superpowerhood? It drives me crazy. We're looking at our wake instead of looking ahead."

Blair's own position is indicative of how haphazardly American power evolves. The regional commanders in chief jobs were created, after some notable blunders, to ensure effective joint operations by the American services, but now underpin a quasi- independent military diplomacy in which American soldiers cultivate special relationships with governments and armed forces in "their" areas.

These military chiefs, with large staffs and a budget which has grown like Topsy, certainly moderate policy and sometimes make it. They do so sometimes in opposition to elements in both the Pentagon and the State Department, and they have also sometimes taken a more liberal line on particular issues. It recalls the rivalries and "rings" of British imperial days, and is perhaps to be expected: where else but in an empire would empire building flourish?

A degree of incoherence arising from the existence of different power centers has always been evident in American foreign policy, but it may have got worse under Clinton, with Congress exerting greater influence as it reclaims its rights, as legislators see things, in international affairs.

But, for critics and defenders of American empire alike, it is less the incoherence than the fragility of the structure that is the most obvious characteristic. Paul Kennedy identified the problem of "overstretch" many years ago in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. That book's cogent analysis of America's imperial problems was at first embraced, and then rather forgotten as the end of the cold war seemed to leave the United States in a position of unprecedented strength. But, under Clinton, it has become clearer that America's empire has enormous reach but only limited punch.

Militarily, it often seems perverse, favoring military solutions when they are wrong or inappropriate, but tending to duck them on the few occasions when they are required. Protection from communist threats no longer figures on the balance sheet for most countries.

Yet the costs of the worldwide military presence are high and attempts to extract some of those costs from supposed beneficiaries -- by way of payments for troops, by way of arms sales, by way of market advantages for the United States -- are frequently resented. The economic benefits that the American relationship was supposed to bring may always have owed more to local efforts than to American policy, and, after the Asian economic crisis, look far less certain.

Politically, America's help in establishing or restoring democracy has been real enough in some places and at some times, yet often the reverse has been true. The big Asian democratic breakthroughs in South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, for instance, came after years of U.S. support of the undemocratic or quasi- democratic regimes that had gone before.

The Japanese expert Chalmers Johnson, now a professor at the University of California, is the author of a comprehensive recent attack on American empire. His thesis, bolstered by his view that the Asian economic crisis was largely America's fault, is that America has been storing up trouble for itself -- in particular in Asia. He calls this "blowback", a term which the Central Intelligence Agency first coined to describe the unintended consequences of American policies and activities, often covert ones. Blowback can be anything from a terrorist operation to a sudden refusal, after years of compliance, to go along with American requirements. It links both elite and popular resentments. "The United States," he writes, "now faces an agenda of problems that simply would not exist except for the imperial commitments and activities, open and covert, that accompanied the cold war." It has added to those problems, he further argues, by some of its policies in the post-cold war years.

Blowback has a nice dramatic touch, but seems too catchall a category to explain as much as Johnson wants it to. His argument that the United States should simply dismantle its empire has to be set beside Schlesinger's weary wisdom, which is that something like empire will always exist wherever there are stronger and weaker nations. Among those who do not wish to simply tear down the structures of American power, most have some attachment to it. That is because it is familiar, because they have seen it used for good as well as ill, and because nobody knows what life would be like without it. But the defects of a system that has never been rationally examined are obvious, and a thoroughgoing debate about the purpose of empire is overdue, both inside and outside America.

-- Guardian News Service